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The Shattered Bodice

Every once in a while, something interesting comes in that needs something unusual done to it.  I just finished this “stabilization,” and I thought it might be something folks would like to read about.

A little background.  I was asked to stabilize a few gowns of historical significance to our local community.  There were 5 in total.  The first 4 were relatively easy to look after.  Shattering that needed to be sorted out, seams to fix, etc. 

The 5th one….

Was a particularly pretty - late 1880’s day dress.  It was made of silk (as most high-end gowns of the time were). The problem with this dress was the silk.  If silk isn’t stored in a cool, dry and dark place, with stable humidity, it tends to split and fall apart.  This splitting is called “shattering,” and it happens because silk fibres are crystal structures.  When the fibres deteriorate through a lack of proper storage, they become sharp and very brittle.  Consequently, the sharp fibres basically cut themselves, resulting in weakness and splitting. 

Look on the shoulder and you will see all sorts of small rips.  Those are what shattering looks like.

Now that your science lesson is over…. On to the dress.

Unfortunately, the skirt was in horrid shape.  Every time I handled it, the skirt deteriorated a little more.  So, in the interest of preservation – I carefully repacked the skirt and just left it as is.  If someone of historical significance didn’t previously wear the gown, I would have recommended trashing it.

The bodice was in a little better shape, but not much.  The silk had small shatters pretty well all over the dress, and the more it was handled, the more little shatters appeared.  So, obviously, I didn’t want to handle it too much.   My client was having the dress stabilized with the thought that she might be able to exhibit it in the future. 

Here’s the bodice before I started fixing things…..


So my dilemma….how much work can I do to the bodice to get it as stable as possible without compromising the structural and esthetic integrity.  Keeping in mind that the more I work with it, the weaker the bodice becomes. 


On closer inspection, I decided to leave the little shatters and imperfections as is.  I think I would cause more damage than good if I did anything to them.  The one area that I did do some work is the front closing….

The bodice has a side asymmetrical closing (quite common in late Victorian clothing). When the bodice is mounted on a mannequin, the area containing the closures will receive a lot of handling.    

 A pretty “bertha” was used as embellishment and a hiding place for all the fasteners.  Unfortunately, the “bertha” was almost in shreds.  In the garment restoration world, adding something to the fabric is a cardinal sin.  So, any restoration people out there…. forget you read the rest of this…. 

I carefully removed the fabric that made up the fastener side of the bertha and gave it a light press to see what I was dealing with.  Yup, the fabric was shattered to ribbons.  So, I decided to back it with a light fusible webbing.  Gasp!  I didn’t permanently attach the webbing, just enough to give the fabric some stability and make it easy to remove if someone in the future decides to take a stab at the bodice. 


Bertha Piece before the stabilizer  

Bertha Piece - with the stabilizer attached

Attaching that backing did the trick.  The fabric doesn’t look much different than when I started.  I left all the loose threads, etc., and you can see a bit of the backing, but it's now stable enough that I can work on getting some stability into the closing. 

It was relatively easy from there on in to refold the bertha and reattach it to the gown.


I always find it extremely interesting how previous dressmakers handled little problems that came up when the original bodice was constructed.  The fashion of the day was to have a side front closure.  The bodice has a pretty yolk with lace applique, and there are three different fabrics and a metal embellishment meeting in the one corner - that holds the bottom together.  There’s quite the configuration to close the top and make everything look nice and neat.

Looking at the pic – the right side is the fastening side. 

Its hard to find how its put together, which means  I've done my job :-)


Here’s the completed bodice all tucked up nicely in her box.  She is not looking much different than when I first started on her, but she is infinitely more stable around those areas that will be handled in the future. 


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